This paper is a history of the making of the European Union's Water Framework Directive (WFD). It will be followed by a second paper, which analyses the relationship between the innovations of the WFD and a range of different interest groups. This directive is of particular interest to commentators on EU policy-making because it was created through the co-decision process, in which the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament have joint influence over the final text. Following substantive differences in position between the two bodies the WFD was finalized through a conciliation process in June 2000. This change in the practice of European decision-making has allowed non-governmental organizations new opportunities to participate in water policy-making and to have a greater influence on EU directives. It is argued that the environmental lobby has adapted swiftly to these changes and used them to considerable advantage in pursuit of its own goals. The passage of the legislation between 1998 and 2000 is described, paying careful attention to who participated in the process of amending the draft directive and what major amendments were made. © 2003 John Wiley and Sons, Ltd and ERP Environment.